The Art Of Storytelling by Michael Berman

Storytelling is the art of orally sharing a story or experience with an audience, usually face to face. As a learning tool, it can encourage students to explore their unique expressiveness and can heighten their ability to communicate thoughts and feelings in an articulate, lucid manner. These benefits transcend the art experience to support daily life skills. In our fast-paced, media-driven world, storytelling can be a nurturing way to remind children that their spoken words are powerful, that listening is important, and that clear communication between people is an art.

Becoming verbally proficient can contribute to a student's ability to resolve interpersonal conflict non-violently. Negotiation, discussion, and tact are peacemaking skills. Being able to lucidly express one's thoughts and feelings is important for a child's safety. Clear communication is the first step to being able to ask for help when it is needed.

Both telling a story and listening to a well-told tale encourages students to use their imaginations. Developing the imagination can contribute to self-confidence and personal motivation as learners envision themselves competent and able to accomplish their hopes and dreams.

Storytelling based on traditional folktales is a gentle way to guide young people toward constructive personal values by presenting imaginative situations in which the outcome of both wise and unwise actions and decisions can be seen.

As a storyteller, it is obviously important to know your story but this does not necessarily mean memorizing the words. You can do that if you want to, but the main thing is to know what happens to whom and when it is supposed to happen. One way of accomplishing this is to make an outline of the story to study. Another way is to imagine a picture for each part of the story with all the important things in the picture. Any special parts of the presentation such as poetry or complex phrases can be learned by heart and / or you can print them out on cue cards for reference. The more you repeat them out loud, the easier it will be to say them, whether you memorize them or not. Use stories you are confident with from previous occasions for a first time situation because the knowledge that you are well prepared helps diminish any nervousness you might be experiencing.

Before it is time to tell, if possible, check out the space. If there is something that needs to be set up or changed, something to be planned, do it early, before you tell. Anticipate some of the things which might go wrong and know the strategies you will use to deal with any problems that might crop up. Make sure you have a fall-back position or some extra material up your sleeve to use if necessary. Remember that most of the things which are not right will probably only be noticed by you. Deal with everything you need to deal with beforehand, then forget about those things. When you get up to tell, it is time to concentrate on the listeners.

Keep the introduction and explanation as brief as possible. You may want to memorize some opening lines to make sure you leave nothing to chance and to show the audience that you know what you are doing; from then on it is up to them. As for the ending, take your time, but not the next speaker's. Be on, be good, and be off (vaudevillians' rule). Prepare a clean punch line or closing comment to finish with. "And that's the story of __," will do. And remember to thank your audience too.
Making mistakes is a natural part of performing. It is not a question of what to do if you make a mistake, but simply a matter of when you make a mistake. The most important thing is to stay calm and keep going. The audience does not know you have made a mistake unless you tell them so do not draw attention to the problem by admitting to it or apologising. As far as they know, the way you told the story is the way you meant to tell it.

When you look out at the people listening to you, avoid anyone who makes you nervous. Try to find the people who make you feel safe. There is no reason to be scared of your audience. Your audience is (usually) your friend. They want you to succeed. And, since many of them are also nervous about talking in front of people, they will be sympathetic if things go wrong. Obviously, this sympathy is somewhat dependent on the venue and how much people pay to see you perform.

The nervousness you feel before going on is your performance energy. That is what will get you up on stage and into your story. And if you do not feel it, your performance will probably fall flat. The energy you feel is an instinctive reaction to stress. The body knows something is about to happen and is preparing for action. However, the emotional content is entirely conscious. Research shows that physiologically, fear, anger, excitement are all identical. The body is reacting in the same way. Your mind determines how you react to those stimuli and your emotions are under your control. With some practice, you can control whether it is fear or excitement running through your head before going on.
If you suffer badly from nerves, the Zen concept of No-Self as an approach to the problem can prove to be helpful - "There is no teller... only the tale." In this way you disappear for yourself as well as for the listeners. And if you have disappeared then there is no one to be nervous for.

An alternative approach is to make use of a Talking Stick (an American Indian tradition) which you pick up when you tell and hand to others when they tell. It helps to connect you to those legions over the centuries who have told stories and to remind you that you that you have an ancient responsibility to both audience and story. This carries you well beyond the awareness of nervousness. The nervousness is still there but now it is harnessed to bringing out the life in that story. The idea is to make your focus the responsibility to your audience and your story rather than focusing on yourself. Let go of yourself and think about the people you are telling the story to. Pay attention to them and you won't be thinking of yourself and you won't be nervous.

Guided visualisation can also be an effective tool. Sitting in some quiet place, imagine as clearly as possible that you are preparing to perform - employing all your senses - the sights, sounds, smells, and feelings associated with these pre-performance moments. Be as specific and detailed in your imaging as possible. When you have placed yourself as fully as possible into the pre-performance context, imagine yourself feeling completely confident--fearless. Imagine how great it would be to feel that way, rather than scared. Then continue on with the imagined performance: you present your material--solidly, and with confidence. Imagine the smoothness and grace with which you will make your presentation. Imagine your heart keeping a steady pace instead of racing. Imagine your breath deep and full, not shallow and shaky. In other words, paint an accurate and detailed mental image of every step of the process - the way you've experienced it so many times before - but with a successful outcome. Once you have experienced success in non-ordinary reality in this way, it becomes that much easier to achieve in this reality

Slowing down your breathing can help to control nervousness too. If you must focus on yourself, then focus on your breath. Breathing is the most important thing for life. If you are nervous, if you are scared, or feel anyway you don't want to feel, then think about your breath and control it. Deep breaths - in through your nose - out through your mouth. Once you have your breath under control, you can do anything.

One way to practise storytelling with others is to pick a partner and sit facing each other, close enough to have your knees touching. Have other partners on either side of you so you are in two long lines all up close against each other, and all facing your respective partners. One person in each pair starts the story and after thirty seconds to a minute say, 'and', and then 'throw' the story to the person opposite to continue. That person makes up the next short segment, says 'and' and then passes the story back to the first person again. The story unfolds by being passed backwards and forwards this way between the same two partners.

Before everyone starts they are told that the story that is to unfold between each pair is to be about a journey. Two people who a very fond of each other go their separate ways and on their respective journeys. Many things happen during the course of their journeys that stretch their resourcefulness and help them grow in wisdom. Then circumstances happen such that they find each other again and share the experiences they had along the way.

This article is taken from the book COPING WITH CONFLICT: Wisdom tales, for teachers, trainers and therapists.


Michael Berman is currently a research student at the University of Wales, Lampeter, and working part-time as a teacher at Oxford House College in London. Publications include A Multiple Intelligences Road to an ELT Classroom and The Power of Metaphor for Crown House Publishing and The Shaman and the Storyteller for Superscript. Michael has been involved in TESOL for over thirty years and has given presentations at Conferences in Austria, Azerbaijan, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Cyprus, Finland, France, Georgia, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Poland, Romania, Russia, Slovenia, Spain, Turkey, and the Ukraine.

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